ONEPLANET Sustainability Review

Sustainability Research, Reviews and Signposting

Strengthening the UK Homes and Communities Agency: Supporting regeneration, integrating sustainability



Presentation given 07 March 2013. Here is a link to the presentation:

In the United Kingdom, delivering sustainability in regeneration and social, or affordable, housing is the responsibility of the Homes and Communities Agency, or HCA.  The question I wish to ask is this: with regards to Sustainable Development in the UK: the HCA makes all the right noises, but do they deliver on their words? If not, how can they be strengthened to better address sustainable development in their CENTRAL activities of social housing and regeneration?


The goal here is threefold:

1        First I’d like to look at these aspects of sustainable development through the lens of the HCA.

2        Second, I’ll try to understand what might be holding the HCA back from delivering sustainable development.

3        Third I’ll propose some interventions that might improve the HCAs capacity for delivering sustainable development.

Who exactly are HCA, and what do they have to do with Sustainable Development?  To quote their website, “The HCA is the national housing and regeneration agency for England, with a capital investment budget of nearly £1 billion a year.” The Agency is also the regulator of social housing providers and works with local partners to “create new affordable homes and thriving neighbourhoods.”

Under the Department for Communities and Local Government umbrella, the HCA say “their purpose is to contribute to economic growth by helping communities to realise their aspirations for prosperity, and to deliver quality housing that people can afford.”

The HCA was formed by merging several former bodies, including the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships, both housing enabling and delivery agencies.  However the latter was formed by merging the Commission for New Towns and the Urban Regeneration Agency.  In addition, the HCA was originally set up to split regulation and investment responsibilities between itself and the Tenant Services Authority.

Their statutory objectives as outlined in the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 are to:

  • “improve the supply and quality of housing
  • secure the regeneration or development of land or infrastructure
  • support the creation, regeneration or development of communities or their continued well-being
  • contribute to the achievement of sustainable development and good design, with a view to meeting the needs of people”

To deliver these objectives, they primarily collaborate in local Partnerships to “deploy their resources and expertise”. These partnerships range from governmental to non-governmental organisations, public and private bodies, local authorities and developers.

What does all this have to do with Sustainable Development?

In the HCAs context, it ideally equates to: Social sustainability, in terms of providing suitable, decent housing for all of society, as well as the facilities and infrastructure required to sustain it; Economic sustainability, through not only cost effective and resource efficient housing delivery, but also by providing new housing in proximity to areas of economic activity for jobs and social structure; and Environmental sustainability, through the use of local, renewable and low-carbon materials, processes and labour to reduce: stress on the environment, resource availability and carbon emissions.  So ideally, Sustainable Communities seek to holistically combine these three pillars of sustainability towards the end goal of self-sufficiency and facilitating low-carbon, sustainable lifestyles.

Next, we need to understand the operating conditions in which the HCA seek to deliver sustainable development.  It’s helpful to identify some constraints and challenges that they seem to encounter; and some of the messages I can discern from all this. One might discern certain condition-related or implementation-related constraints, which include: Housing shortages and population issues where this first graph the shortfall between homes needed and homes built; Economic and employment issues: such as Rising costs and unemployment challenges, where this second graph shows the number of unemployed for the last 10yrs.; Increasingly challenging targets for housing delivery volume, carbon reduction, housing standards, land availability, etc.  Furthermore, in practice, Regeneration is not always housing-led, with urban regeneration frequently entailing complex requirements and injections of: investment, support, infrastructure, providing employment opportunities, etc.  Sustainable construction, or refurbishment of existing homes, doesn’t preclude occupants from unsustainable behaviours.  Similarly, sustainable regeneration still relies on ‘second-degree’ unsustainable products and mechanisms, as well as the questionable sustainability credentials of political and economic systems.

In addition, there are also institutional or structural constraints, such as: On-going changes and developments in government policy; We are also faced with the Coalition austerity measures that mandated the HCA cut 50% of their budget and reorganise nationally … now, this can’t be ignored; The Coalition’s lack of engagement with the sustainability agenda; There also seems to be a slightly confused use of Sustainable Development terminology, where they’re interchanging SD with “building and construction as development”, instead of seeing it encompassing human development and environmental sustainability issues;  It has become increasingly obvious that affordable housing is a primary focus at the HCA, and Regeneration has become a poor relation to it, leaving a significant gap for delivering wide-scope sustainability.

We should also consider HCA’s Challenges, which include several issues such as: The Integration of sustainability principles and embedding them throughout the agency, not just as an add-on for new projects, or stuffed into “guidance” documents; Delivering the government’s green promises through continued austerity, quango culls and departmental cutbacks; Continuing to deliver satisfactory standards of projects and investments with a reduced staff and budget, where they’re in danger of over-promising and under-delivering, not unknown to those overstretched and under-resourced; Advancing the regeneration agenda and housing targets alongside continuing pressure towards economic austerity and decentralisation; I’ve found the HCA’s broad scope of somewhat limited depth remains uncoordinated with certain key premises of sustainability, leaving out such important issues as: sustainable social and utilities infrastructure, natural environment interfaces, urban ecology and biodiversity, for instance. I’d like to see the HCA holistically incorporating these natural environment interfaces within the HCA’s operations and principles.


What are the Key Messages that can be discerned here?

Although I’ve mentioned all the main negatives related to sustainable development, there are a few positives: The HCAs knowledge and practices are well-informed and sufficiently broad, excepting for a lack of clear natural environment and biodiversity commitments. Construction of targeted social housing continues to benefit local communities, helping to solve difficult housing and social issues in the most urgent areas.  What sticks for me, is that their focus on appropriately diverse areas for sustainability is somewhat deficient.

So I’d like to explore a possible plan for how the HCA could be strengthened to better address sustainable development.  Now, I’d like to think that in many of HCA’s really dynamic, wide-ranging aspirational statements and objectives, Most of the structural foundations for their strengthening have already been laid.

I think that the HCA can deliver sustainability through an efficient, targeted concentration on its regeneration remit – in combination with its housing remit, where the HCA could:

  • Focus on implementation of regeneration for sustainability, not just affordable housing
  • Concentrate on enabling and delivering mixed-use community regeneration projects
  • Integrate sustainable regeneration or sustainable communities initiatives within existing affordable housing programmes
  • Promote greater pre-emptive local authority engagement in sustainability, and not waiting to be contacted by them.


So here are five relatively realistic suggestions to achieve this, through:

1       Divesting their regulating capacity and non-critical responsibilities to those suitable such as DCLG, BSI, and CABE for instance

2       Adopting alternative governance strategies could enable much greater integration of cross-sector sustainability throughout delivery

3       Revising organisational objectives and internal policies to support a much more effective embedding of sustainability across the department

This way HCA can seek and implement alternatives to housing-led regeneration, focusing more on localised, targeted interventions and more mixed-use.  Furthermore, Id like to see the HCA:

4       Engage a more INTEGRATED agenda that mandatorily links some quantifiable aspect of sustainable regeneration with every social housing project…   I envisage this by:

5       Creating a holistic delivery model that:

  • Addresses responsibilities for environmental sustainability individually by project location;
  • That provides social infrastructure where locally required to form the critical mass necessary for social sustainability; and
  • And that enables greater self-sufficiency through such measures as on-site ‘urban agriculture’ and ‘energy production’;

I think this demands a targeted programme focus that continues to address the most-needed social housing requirements, whilst reassessing the relationships necessary to engender a realignment towards holistic sustainabilityFinally, any sensible change programme would include external communications and promotion to encourage others of the merits of such change.


So, what Outcomes might be Anticipated as a result of these suggestions?  I’d like to think Some POSITIVE outcomes might include:

  • The creation of more resilient communities that can respond to different kinds of change, including environmental, economic and social …
  • Greater social cohesion
  • Less long-term investment required by self-sufficient communities …
  • Better use of resources throughout project life-cycle: embedding holistic sustainability on a scale much larger & deeper …
  • Improved national sustainability associated with providing programmes with positive long-term impacts …

The intention here is that these changes can result in long-term improvements in environmental and social benefits, and reduced costs.


Some NEGATIVE outcomes might include:

  • Resistance from those with a housing-focus, who would continue to see as paramount the HCAs delivery of affordable housing
  • Political support … or rather the difficulty finding government support …
  • Financing any change is always challenging …
  • Project costs are likely to increase in the short-term, owing to mandatory social and environmental sustainability requirements, which actually reflect the true cost of environmental and social welfare…
  • And sadly, existing and previous projects will lose out on the suite of benefits associated with holistic sustainability, requiring future reappraisal and investment.


Final thoughts and some further questions

Despite the fact that HCAs stated remit and objectives are fairly central to SD, the principles of sustainability don’t seem to occupy central roles as driving forces in the organisation; for the HCA, sustainability seems to have become a function of housing delivery by way of building regulations and central government initiatives.

If sustainability was integrated a driving principle, I think we would probably see a shift in the balance towards regeneration work, with sustainable communities in the holistic sense forming a more central guiding role. This would see the delivery of SD with a much wider scope, and greatly improved results in terms of overall sustainability, in both short- and long-term.

How can this debate proceed towards a department that’s more regeneration-focused with a greater sense of the urgency and necessity of embedding wide-scope sustainability?  Further questions to investigate on these issues might include:

  1. Is the problem of embedding holistic sustainability internal, external, or hybrid and compound, and can it realistically be addressed with current resources and within current structures, both political and economic?
  2. Can a department continually challenged by diminishing fiscal and human resources ever be expected to deliver objectives of increasing variety and complexity?
  3. 3.       How can we talk sensibly about budget funding redirection from external ‘insurance policies’, such as National Defence, to ‘internal insurances’ such as public welfare and environmental sustainability within the country?  Does this even make sense given what we know about the transboundary scope and scale of environmental change and sustainability?

Can we really engage the political elites with these critically important, widespread and urgent issues within an economic and political system currently aligned with the interests of big business and moneyed elites?

One might even ask why we are even having to ask these questions in such a wealthy, educated northern country that participates so heavily in not only international warfare and peacekeeping missions, but also international environmental/climate development initiatives in a grossly imbalanced global political economy of inequality, poverty, suffering and environmental degradation?  We as the human race have a highly sophisticated set of values and communications networks that the existence of such disparities and deeply troubling issues is profoundly unwarranted and unnecessary and actionable.

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This entry was posted on 21 November 2013 by in Sustainable built environment, Sustainable Development.

Part of the Problem? or Part of the Solution?

Rampant consumerism.
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Damaging and unsustainable travel and transport.
Extensive environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
These are some of the problems we face.
Energy crisis.
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